How this happiness guru uses positive psychology to help clients achieve happiness

(Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail)

Even if you’ve suffered a life-threatening tragedy. Even if you are known as the surliest guy on the block.

Even if the boss you always hated gave you the sack. Do not despair. Happiness is within your grasp.

So believes happiness guru Mark Berber, a Toronto psychiatrist who uses happiness therapy in his 30-year practice to rally patients with often debilitating mental-health disorders ranging from anxiety to severe depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Borrowing from renowned U.S. psychologist and author Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, Berber helps patients treat very serious mental illnesses by combining traditional psychiatry (and the prescription of mood-stabilizing drugs) with principles of positive psychology which, at their root, emphasize the importance of making life-affirming, healthy choices to attain a state of greater happiness.

Berber follows a Seligman-inspired formula, expounded in Seligman’s book,Authentic Happiness, that states if your capacity for happiness is measured on a scale of 1 to 100, the first 50 per cent is outside your control – we’re born with the glass half-full (or half-empty, depending on your outlook).

Another 10 per cent of our happiness level is affected by circumstance (good or bad events such as winning the lottery or losing a job) and the final 40 per cent is determined by “voluntary variables,” those personal choices that make you feel good about yourself and, by extension, improve the quality of your outlook and life.

“We can’t change the circumstances of our lives easily, but we can change the variables – and become happier people – by trying to focus on positive attributes such as being kind, grateful and a help to others,” Berber says.

Even if you suffer a devastating event that causes you to lose 10 per cent of your capacity for happiness, you can still bounce back.

“We see a lot of people who come in and are traumatized by events in their life, but with the appropriate professional help they can be happy again. … Human beings are very resilient, especially if they are given the right tools.”

One of Berber’s long-time patients, Rona Mackay, has suffered with bipolar depression for years. The 54-year-old says Berber’s emphasis on positive psychology helped her turn her life around.

“Besides helping me find the appropriate meds, he never stops telling me to stop sweating the small stuff, to take a walk, look around, appreciate a beautiful day,” says Mackay, who credits 100 per cent of her recovery to his upbeat approach.

“I wouldn’t be in this place without him. He’s helped me repattern the thoughts in my brain.”

Regardless of whether you are a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person, you can lead a happier life, Berber believes.

It’s in your hands, he says, to make decisions and changes to your life to feel better. But you have to be motivated to train your brain.

“A Roman philosopher wrote that the happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. The way we think determines how we feel.”

Berber, who is based at Ontario’s Markham Stouffville Hospital, says too often happiness is misunderstood or “trivialized.” Besides the obvious emotional benefits of being happy, he rhymes off the physical pluses as well, including lower blood pressure, better sleep, improved cognitive function, longer life expectancy, stronger immune defence mechanisms, and a decrease in the secretion of cortisol from your adrenal glands (the stress hormone).

March 20 is the United Nations’ second-annual International Day of Happiness, established to promote the theory that cheerfulness improves mental and physical wellness and also fosters economic prosperity.

At the end of the day, Berber says happiness comes down to nurturing a subjective sense of well-being. His tips to happiness are simple and straightforward:

  • Nurture healthy relationships. “Married men and women are happiest,” asserts Berber. “If you’re in an unhappy marriage you shouldn’t stay in it. People in unhappy marriages have a much higher risk of depression, increased risk of high blood pressure, and women in particular have a greater probability of heart disease.”
  • Pet-owners are generally happier, less lonely. “Support from a pet is equivalent to support you get from parents and siblings. The one-year mortality rate following a heart attack is 1 per cent with a pet, and 7 per cent with no pet.”
  • Say thank you and be thankful. “Be aware of kind acts from others and don’t take people for granted,” he says.
  • Be kind. Be a volunteer. “It links you with people, and nurturing all your relationships makes you happier.”
  • Forgive and let go. “A lot of people have bad things happen in their lives.… Let go and move on.”
  • Exercise. “Physical activity improves your mood, reduces your anxiety and increases longevity.”
  • Find meaning and engagement in your life. “Live in the moment. We’re too focused on what will happen tomorrow. Don’t put off your happiness until tomorrow.”
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